SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Republicans harnessed pandemic anger months ago to qualify the recall election against California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Now the Democrat is banking on a pandemic strategy of his own to save his job.
After tiptoeing around Covid-19 issues early this summer, Newsom is issuing mask and vaccine mandates and taking a tough-on-the-virus approach in the final stretch of the recall campaign.
The tactics have turned the race into the nation’s biggest referendum on how to fight the pandemic — and further inflamed partisan divisions over public health. Just as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis thinks banning mandates is a winning message in his red state, Newsom hopes voters will embrace his more restrictive Covid-19 approach in deep-blue California.
"There is no more consequential decision to the health and safety of the people of the state of California than voting no on this Republican-backed recall," Newsom said Tuesday at a vaccine event in Oakland two weeks before the recall election. He said that "the starkest contrast" exists between him and the Republican candidates who would rather go the way of Texas and Florida, states with more lax protocols and subsequently lower vaccine rates and higher virus cases.
The governor was blasted in November for attending a high-end French Laundry dinner with lobbyist friends despite discouraging residents from attending social gatherings, a cringe-worthy decision widely viewed as a catalyst for the signature drive that qualified the recall. Things only got worse in subsequent months as California suffered its highest Covid-19 death rates and hospitals were overrun.
As Californians got vaccinated and infections fell this spring, however, Newsom shifted his emphasis to the state's reopening and his efforts to spend a budget windfall on homelessness, stimulus checks and education. The governor replaced his regular briefings on Covid-19 cases and vaccination efforts with a celebration at Universal Studios alongside costumed Trolls and a large budget rally celebrating a "California comeback."
In the final stretch before the Sept. 14 election, the governor has leaned into his pandemic efforts again. In the past month, Newsom mandated a universal school mask policy ahead of the CDC and issued some of the strictest vaccine requirements for teachers and health care workers in the country. Meanwhile, all of the top Republican recall candidates are vowing to undo those mandates if elected.
As Delta variant anxieties increase, and the election coincides with precarious school reopenings, the Democratic governor sees opportunity in drawing a stark and ominous line between himself and his challengers: If he is ousted, the virus will get worse, not better.
“What’s at stake in the September 14 recall? It’s a matter of life and death,” states a new ad against the recall, slamming top GOP candidate Larry Elder for having a “radically different” approach to vaccines than Newsom and for pushing “deadly conspiracy theories” about the virus. Newsom's team was quick to circulate a CNN interview this week in which Elder suggested children did not need to be vaccinated and downplayed their risk of infection.
The election season messaging might seem counterintuitive given it was anger over pandemic lockdowns that helped make the recall possible. But Democrats far outnumber Republicans in California, which means Newsom need only turn out his base to survive.
Sean Gailmard, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley and close observer of the recall, noted a shift in Newsom's messaging since May when he was riding rollercoasters, giving away checks to the vaccinated like a game-show host and celebrating California's comeback following a whirlwind winter of curfews and stay-at-home orders.
The mood now is more solemn and, luckily for Newsom, the focus is not on a California-specific problem.
"A messaging strategy that would make sense is to emphasize the major problem of the day as long as no one can say that you caused it, and that’s the reality we’re in with Delta. Anyone can see it’s raging across the country, and is worse in many places," Gailmard said. "He’s not talking about fires or housing development or reminding people that sometimes conditions here are difficult. The only message is: I'm the only choice facing the voters that has any capability to do a reasonably good job."
The public health threat and the threat to boot Newsom from office have been undeniably intertwined since the beginning, when a judge granted recall proponents more time to collect signatures due to pandemic restraints.
Polling shows that slightly more voters are poised to reject the recall than oust Newsom, but an even greater share of Californians support the governor's approach on pandemic restrictions. A majority of likely voters told the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies last month that Newsom had done an excellent or good job on the pandemic, while CBS News found 60-40 approval for Newsom’s handling of outbreaks.
Given that strength, Newsom's team likely sees pandemic messaging as a winning approach in deep blue California.
"What's on the top of voters' minds right now is they don't want California to turn into Florida or Texas. They don't want a governor who will enable anti-vaxxers to endanger everyone else," Newsom campaign spokesperson Nathan Click said. "It's become the issue in the recall because for voters, it's the issue in life, in general. It's the thing at the top of everyone's mind."
While Newsom has championed Covid precautions, he has not returned to some of the more aggressive orders of the past, which previously drew criticism of authoritative overreach and general public dismay over shuttered businesses. Instead, cities and counties on their own have moved forward with mask mandates.
In early July, Newsom dodged questions about a potential return to a statewide mask mandate. By the end of the month, his public health team had recommended that all residents, regardless of vaccination status, resume wearing masks in indoor public settings in areas with high Covid-19 transmission, following CDC guidance. That stops short of a true mandate like the one just implemented by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
"To a large degree, the difference in tone is being driven by a difference in the politics of the moment. Now, there's a vaccine, so Newsom can warn about how evil Republicans are going to put the state at risk, but he doesn't have to propose shutdowns anymore," said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist and state campaign finance watchdog who now teaches politics at multiple California universities. "He is taking a tough line on masks and vaccine mandates but he knows that the majority of the public agrees with him on those measures."
Candidates vying for Newsom’s spot as governor are focusing on the pandemic, too — in the opposite direction.
At a debate among three top GOP candidates in Sacramento, all agreed that they would do away with Newsom’s mask and vaccine orders if elected to replace him.
“It’s not about mandating and taking a one-size-fits-all approach,” Republican candidate Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego, said at the debate hosted by the Sacramento Press Club. “It’s about letting the local public health officials make those decisions for themselves. We’re not going to mandate our way out of Covid-19.”
In a recent YouTube post, Elder preached against being “pushed around by government,” saying that masks and vaccines should be an individual decision, not a directive from politicians. Elder and other Republicans have warned that Newsom would return to ordering businesses closed and imposing more restrictions on schools if he defeats the recall.
“Isn't that America? Isn't that what freedom is all about? Didn't Thomas Jefferson warn us about trading freedom for public safety?” Elder said. “How far does this go?”
Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, said that the upcoming election has always been “the pandemic recall.”
Now, that's clearer than ever, as Delta sparks fear in voters, both about the virus, and how a new governor could change things.
“The public health issue has been a part of the recall all along. It’s very divisive and that has implications for the messaging, and ultimately, the voting,” Baldassare said. “Issues like the economy and the budget may not seem quite so pressing right now. For many Californians, the number one issue is how are we handling the Covid crisis?”
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